XFiles Friday: “Materialism makes reason impossible.”February 29, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 5)
Geisler and Turek began their formal apologetic with a critique of the postmodernist idea that truth cannot be known, using the “Road Runner” strategy of pointing out the fact that postmodernists are standing on thin air. If truth cannot be known, how could you know that it were true that truth cannot be known? Rhetorically speaking, the postmodernists look down, see the yawning chasm below them, and tumble like the hapless Coyote of Saturday morning cartoons.
This tactic backfired badly on Geisler and Turek, however, when they themselves turned around and embraced the postmodernist idea that science is only as reliable as the philosophy it’s allegedly enslaved to. The whole focus of their book is to show that the scientific evidence vindicates their philosophical (theological) approach, but by their own argument, their conclusion is not objective and is simply predetermined by their own underlying philosophy/theology.
Perhaps at some level they instinctively sense the hole they’ve dug themselves into, because their next step is to try and up the ante by claiming that materialism makes reason impossible. It’s a desperate bluff, but one that just might work on some people.
Before we get into Geisler and Turek’s attack on what they call “materialism,” let’s stop for a moment and think. What is materialism? A naive answer to that question might be to say that materialism says only matter is real, and everything that is not made of matter is not real. It is trivial to prove that such an oversimplified version of materialism is false. Matter, for example, has a number of properties or attributes which are not themselves made of matter. If the attributes of matter were made of matter, then the attributes would also have attributes, which in turn would have to be made of matter, which would have attributes, ad infinitum.
But fortunately, this is not the case. Matter has attributes, such as size, mass, location, distance from other particles of matter, etc, that are not themselves made of matter. If we take the naive and oversimplified view that matter = natural and not-made-of-matter = supernatural, we end up with a material world whose attributes are all supernatural. This would unite the natural realm with the supernatural realm (at least in terms of how we defined the concepts), but would do so by incorporating “the supernatural” into the realm that is accessible to scientific verification. And if that were the case, then the scientific approach, which Geisler and Turek dismiss as being “too materialistic,” would be a perfectly valid way to evaluate the truth of supernaturalist claims.
There are other things which are real which are not made of matter, but rather are emergent attributes of material reality. The number ? for example: it’s not made up of molecules or atoms or subatomic particles. It’s not a number that the human imagination invented (in fact, the exact value of ? is impossible to calculate). Yet it is quite real, as are the laws of nature which we discern through science.
Other things exist which are real despite not being made of matter: the act of running, for example, or of thinking, or of dying. Matter is involved with such actions, and the actions require the existence of matter, but if I start running, for example, there is no spontaneous creation or destruction of matter associated with beginning and ending of the act of running. Matter does the running, but the running itself is not made of matter. The action is a change in the state of the matter over time.
Obviously, we’re getting into some pretty subtle and abstract distinctions at this point, but these few considerations should help us to develop a little more sophisticated understanding of what materialism implies. The materialistic view could better be described as the view that objective reality is made up of matter, and of the attributes of matter (including natural laws), and of the changes in state which happen in matter. This definition is probably sufficient to deal with the objections Geisler and Turek raise.
But there’s yet another wrinkle. Scientists, whom Geisler and Turek accuse of being blindered by their materialistic world-view, are actually open to the possibility that this physical cosmos might not be all there is to objective reality. They openly and eagerly consider possibilities like string theory and parallel universes, and higher dimensions whose laws might not only be different from the laws we know, but might in some way define those laws. Scientists, in short, are not at all limited by what Geisler and Turek describe as “materialism.” The only limit on scientific knowledge is verifiability, the principle that you don’t really know that something is true unless and until it can be shown to be consistent with real-world truth.
That said, let’s look at Geisler and Turek’s five-point plan for rejecting mainstream scientific findings based on naive philosophical quibbles.
Here are five reasons why materialism is not reasonable.
First…there is a message in life, technically called specified complexity, that cannot be explained materialistically.
Except that this “specified complexity” is routinely produced, via materialistic processes, every time an organism produces offspring that are not carbon-copies of itself.
Second, human thoughts and theories are not comprised only of materials. Chemicals are certainly involved in the human thought process, but they cannot explain all human thoughts.
This is easy enough to verify. Simply supply the brain with enough ethanol to shut down the material aspects of thinking, and whatever is left over is the immaterial component of thinking. What? You just passed out and all thinking ceased? Imagine that.
Third, if life were nothing more than materials, then we’d be able to take all the materials of life…and make a living being… There’s clearly something beyond materials in life. What materialist can explain why one body is alive and another body is dead?
And who says we can’t make a living organism someday? And materialists can’t explain why one body is alive and another one is dead? Maybe Geisler and Turek can’t, but doctors and biologists might be able to teach them a thing or two if they were willing to listen. Life is a process; complex life is a complex process. Interfere with that process in some way, break the process, and life ceases. Geisler and Turek are making a blatant appeal to superstitious ignorance here.
Fourth, if materialism is true, then everyone in all of human history who has ever had any kind of spiritual experience has been completely wrong.
Oh, no, say it isn’t so! Millions of Muslims, all wrong? Voodoo practitioners and New Age channelers and spiritists and psychics, all mistaken? Billions of Buddhists deceived about enlightenment? If this is true, it would imply that superstitious intuitions were an unreliable source of information! Gasp!
Finally, if materialism is true, then reason itself is impossible. For if mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no reason to believe that anything is true (including the theory of materialism).
Oops, this time it’s the Road Runner falling off the cliff. Truth is consistent with itself. Reality is consistent with itself. What’s so difficult to understand about the idea that a real, material brain might be able to form materially-based perceptions which are consistent with the external, material reality being perceived? That’s all it takes for a material brain to be able to behave in a manner consistent with real-world truth. Material reality has readily-observable properties and attributes, including the properties of being orderly (natural laws) and meaningful (cause and effect). Material brains are a part of that material reality, and share in that order and meaning.
Geisler and Turek are clearly flailing around in desperation at this point, since they’ve as much as admitted that thoughts and knowing and perceiving do have a significant material component, at the very least. Much as they would like to claim that some kind of supernatural component is necessary, they have nothing to offer in terms of telling us what the component would be, or why it would be necessary, or how, exactly, it would contribute anything meaningful to the biochemical processes of registering perceptions and organizing the brain structures involved in thinking and knowing. All they can do is insist that, for some unspecified reason, we ought to feel compelled to doubt the reliability of physical mechanisms and their ability to reflect the true state of the world around them. And that’s a pretty bizarre paranoia.